The mysteries of Marfa: John DeMers talks Terlingua Heat
Much has changed.
His most recent book Terlingua Heat has just come out with Bright Sky Press. Mystery, murder, sex, nature and a new sexy sleuth, Danny Morales, are all there in DeMers' new novel. The author brings us into the west Texas action.
I've been to Terlingua, with you, in fact, during our epic Marfa tour. It's more the end of the earth than Death Valley. I do remember the three people we met on the porch, all of whom seemed to be hiding something.
It does seem like a magnet for those with a past. What interested you about this desolate, barren, middle of nowhere place?
It's the end of the highway for so many, with pretty much no place left to run away to. As my visits to Terlingua piled up and I got to "know" more and more people there on that porch — generally by a first name only — the notion took hold that all kinds of lives came before the lives I was looking at.
Just as in the novel, people in Terlingua pull you aside and say things like, "You know, he used to be an economist who almost won the Nobel Prize." It's hard not to fall a little in love with a place like that.
Well, I can tell you did, me, not so much. I'm curious about your Terlingua loving protaganist Danny Morales, a former newspaper man, like you. Is he a younger John DeMers? Plus, you do get in a few digs on the news biz. What made you want to dream up yet another sleuth?
Danny is a lot younger than I am, about 30 years. Though Danny and I share a newspaper background, he is quite different from me. You might say his character was born of my always-told joke about Chef Brett in the Marfa mystery series: "Brett and I are exactly the same, except he's younger, taller, thinner and better looking."
"Just as in the novel, people in Terlingua pull you aside and say things like, 'You know, he used to be an economist who almost won the Nobel Prize.' It's hard not to fall a little in love with a place like that."
Danny is even more so. Also, as much as I love the dynamic of the Marfa books — Brett can't ever stay out of trouble, so his buddy Jud Garcia has to come in with guns blazing to save him — I also wondered: What if my hero were strong enough to save himself?
Finally, I decided that for sheer sexiness and cool, I had to be a river guide. When you want to be something and someone so much, you really need to shut up and write the novel.
Since Danny chucks the news biz to be river rat tour guide, I'm wondering if you, per chance, took a river ride while you were there? Those are some mighty detailed descriptions of raging water in your book. You sound like a nature writer in those passages, at least until the guns start blazing. Did your research involve getting wet?
Absolutely. Once I decided which trip Danny would be leading when the world comes crashing down on him, I booked exactly that trip. I peppered our real-life river guide with questions under the guise of just being curious — how and why he got started, where he lived, what the guides were like off-duty.
Best of all, I even asked if I could row for a while. I did maybe a mile, letting him correct my posture and critique everything I was doing wrong, and he did the other 21 miles. The long section in the book on the river, especially before the bullets start zinging past, is almost nonfiction.
In Marfa Shadows I bugged you about not a single mention of art. But, it's pretty clear that those three guys in Terlingua have never heard of Donald Judd. But there's scant an enchilada in this new book.
No food? How do we know this is the real you? Other than grabbing a snack at a taco stand, poor Danny hardly gets to eat in this book. He could have popped in Chef Bret's snazzy eatery for some fine chow? What gives?
Funny. I put on 25 pounds doing my book Follow the Smoke about Texas BBQ. Maybe I'm finally trying to write a story that doesn't "make me look fat." Really, it's all about the characters. I don't make them up — they kinda make me up.
And these characters wouldn't care about Donald Judd or whether their next repaste was farm-to-table. I was drawn to the hard life lived by Danny and these other Terlingua characters, so far removed from the frivolous pursuits of normal modern city life.
The second backdrop of the book is the great San Antonio. Knowing you, I am assuming that all the San Antonio history is truth, with the exception, I hope, of the Mafia part. What aroused your curiosity in using this city and its unique history as a setting?
First, I love San Antonio. Years ago, I fantasized about writing a mystery series set there, until I started reading the adventures of private eye Tres Navarre by Rick Riordan. After that, it would have felt like trying to out-Hemingway Pamplona. It was delicious when I realized that, since Danny has a past life, he could have it in San Antonio.
All the stuff about the HemisFair giving birth to the modern San Antonio of tourism is my version of the truth, lock, stock and River Walk. I see another question coming about the Mafia, and I have a book's worth of stuff to say about that.
Perhaps it's best to keep the Mafia part on the down low. Moving on, I felt overtones of Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee Novels. Where you influenced by his writing, if not, anyone else?
Sadly, I've never read Tony Hillerman, though many have suggested he's a kindred spirit. Really, my "guides" whenever I write fiction are the same: The Lucas Davenport series by John Sandford, the Lou Boldt series by Ridley Pearson, the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell, and the Commissario Brunetti series by Donna Leon. I especially devour the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva (whom I actually worked with as a young reporter at UPI) and the fundamental Spenser series by Robert B. Parker.
"For a lot of folks, Marfa is an intriguing veneer painted brightly but oh-so-shallowly over all these real lives. Yet it's those real lives, not the veneer, that fascinate me the most."
I was lucky enough to interview Parker at his home a couple blocks from Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., less than a year before he died unexpectedly at his desk. I'll always be grateful. Even though I told him I didn't read Westerns, he made me promise to read his Westerns.
And they taught me what I surely should have known already: That the modern crime hero is a version of the Old West hero, one man called to return moral order to a universe in chaos.
Your book also has a lot of urban myth in it as well. As a child of the 1960s, JFK's assassination is the stuff of iconic lore, and it also factors into your story. Without giving away too much of your page-turning plot, have you always had a fascination with this mysterious story, or is there another reason mid-century history shows up into your tale?
In the mid-1980s, I spent 19 and 1/2 weeks in federal court in New Orleans, covering the racketeering trial of the late New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello and listening to 200-plus hours of secretly recorded conerversations. I can hear those voices in my sleep, still, even if I did feel the need to clean up the vocabulary a lot for my book.
Turns out, each time a defense lawyer objected to a line of questioning, it was because some Kennedy assassination reference was coming up. I am intrigued by the assassination theories linking the crime in Dallas to Marcello in New Orleans and his Tampa counterpart Santo Trafficante (also implicated in that CIA plot with the Mob to kill Castro), and with the murder of U.S. District Judge John Wood in San Antonio (echoed in Danny's almost father-in-law's shooting) by none other than Woody Harrelson's father, who died behind bars and may have fired at JFK from that famous "grassy knoll."
And once I got to thinking and remembering, I was doubly intrigued by the later prosecution of two Marcello associates with FBI recordings from the Brilab trial — the guys were based, drum roll please, in San Antonio. Why there, I kept asking myself. What were they doing? I had all these wonderful and true pieces; I simply had to make up my own puzzle.
I figured as much. Send a copy of the book to Oliver Stone! What's next for Danny?
Terlingua Heat was written as a stand-alone novel, what we trained literary professionals refer to as a "one-off." Actually, though, I love "being" the guy. Maybe some day soon, when you hear I'm paddling down some lost river or climbing some razor-sharp cliff face, you'll know Danny is about to get dragged into something else that's extremely evil from the buried past.
What of Marfa?
There are people in Marfa that I call the "Marfa-onlys," and they're all about the vibe and the art and the cool. They almost never get out of town. Marfa is where I live to be a part of Far West Texas — the vast expanses, the mountains, the border and its river, the Hispanics and the ranch hands and the people born here who've seen so many changes and compromises.
For a lot of folks, Marfa is an intriguing veneer painted brightly but oh-so-shallowly over all these real lives. Yet it's those real lives, not the veneer, that fascinate me the most.